This is meant to be a basic overview of the conservative understanding of Baptism from a Lutheran perspective.
When studying the Lutheran understanding of baptism one must keep in mind that Lutheranism did not have an early formalized doctrinal thesis such as Calvin’s Institutes, and that over time, several men besides Luther (Melancthon, Martin Chemnitz, John Gerhard, etc.) helped shaped early Lutheran doctrine. Thus, current Lutheran doctrine isn’t necessarily identical to that which is found in Luther’s voluminous writings.
Also, keep in mind that Lutheranism, like the Reformed denominations, has been affected by the enlightenment, post-modernism as well as other liberalizing movements. The largest Lutheran denomination is the ELCA – which is very liberal, ordaining homosexuals and even including ‘herchurch’ within its ranks a pagan church offering a weekly ‘goddess rosary’ as well as other bizarre teachings.
The LCMS is the next largest Lutheran denomination in the US, and is generally conservative, much like the PCA for Presbyterians, but they do have some liberal groups in their midst. Other denominations include WELS, ELS as well as others, who part company with LCMS over missional issues.
Many modern Lutheran churches diverge from historic Lutheran doctrine, and their views vary widely. So in this lesson I’m sticking with what has been historically believed.
Historic Lutheran sacramental theology has often said by the Reformed to be a “middle way” between the Roman Catholic and Reformed views of the sacraments. In all honesty, the Lutheran view is closer to the Reformed view, although generally missing (even rejecting) covenantal structure and attributing some superstitious views to the sacrament, once peeled away, they’re very much orthodox with some reservations.
Francis Pieper (1852 – 1931)– Lutheran scholar – in his book Christian Dogmatics states
“The difference between the Lutheran Church and the Reformed in the doctrine of Baptism is fully and adequately defined by saying that the former believes God’s Word regarding Baptism, the latter not” (vol. 3, p. 269).
I recalled, however, that this kind of statement in regard to the sacraments goes back to the sixteenth-century debates between the Lutherans and the Reformed. In his debates with the Lutheran Joachim Westphal, John Calvin was almost driven to distraction by Westphal’s repeated claim that Jesus’ words “This is my body” allowed of no interpretation. One either believed them or one disbelieved them. In the historical context of the Lutheran-Reformed debates, then, Pieper’s statement is not terribly unusual. – Keith Matheson
Lutherans therefore can be very dogmatic and brash about their specific positions.
(Explain Lord’s Supper – in/with/under.)
1) Traditional Lutheran doctrine is rooted in their confessional statements found in the Book of Concord or Concordia. It contains 10 creedal documents including the three ecumenical creeds, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles of Martin Luther (an apologetic work against Roman Catholicism), The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, and the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord.
2. Lutherans have three sacraments: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Absolution(repentance and forgiveness, usually done corporately during the service, much like we have. But some have visible confession/absolution.) They believe sacraments are “rites that have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added.”
3. The central theme of the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments is that they are “the word made visible”.
Philipp Melanchthon wrote, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession – “Surely our hearts ought to be certain that when we are baptized, when we eat the body of the Lord, and when we are absolved, God truly forgives us on account of Christ. And God moves our hearts through the word and the rite at the same time so that they believe and receive faith just as Paul says [Romans 10:17], ‘So faith comes from what is heard.’ For just as the Word enters through the ear in order to strike the heart, so also the rite enters through the eye in order to move the heart. The word and the rite have the same effect. Augustine put it well when he said that the sacrament is a “visible word” because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect.”
Thus baptism can havethe same effect as the preached word to an unregenerate sinner (specifically an infant). Thus they hold to a sort of baptismal regeneration, but not as the Roman Catholics do. Lutherans specifically reject the ex opere operato view of the sacraments, noting that it is the Spirit who, through the sacrament, does the work.
Thus, the combination of the rite and God’s word (read as his solemn promise or vow) is what Lutheran’s believe is what the Spirit uses in the sacraments. Similar to the way we believe that God uses preaching to form faith in a person by the Spirit.
Again the Apology states: Here we condemn the whole crowd of scholastic doctors, who teach that the Sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, without a good disposition on the part of the one using them, provided he do not place a hindrance in the way. This is absolutely a Jewish opinion, to hold that we are justified by a ceremony, without a good disposition of the heart, i.e., without faith.
Reading Luther on the sacraments can be challenging because as one might expect, coming out of Roman Catholicism, one’s views change over time. Some of Luther’s works sound downright ‘baptist’ in their theology – elsewhere he states:
“A person can believe although he is not baptized; for Baptism is no more than an external sign to remind us of the divine promise… or where the Gospel is there Baptism also is and everything a Christian needs, because damnation follows upon no sin except unbelief alone. This is also the reason why the Lord says: “He that believeth not shall be damned.” He does not say: He that is not baptized; but is silent about Baptism. For Baptism is useless without faith. It is like a letter to which seals are attached but in which nothing has been written. Therefore he who has the signs (which we call Sacraments) and not faith has seals only, seals attached to a letter without any writing.”
Yet 4. as Lutheranism began to encounter Anabaptist views it seemed to cling tighter to a sacramental system.
Augsburg Confession IV : [Lutheran churches]- “Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace.”
Small Catechism: What is Baptism? Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.
It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost.
Through baptism, they say, “God actually washes away our sins.” What makes baptism different than a bath is that “water is combined with God’s word… together make a Christian baptism.”
“Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with a God’s word”, the placement of God’s promise and His name upon the person.
Since Infants are sinful baptism takes away sin and regenerates– by the power of the Spirit.
The Small Catechism states:
What does such baptizing with water signify?–Answer.
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
So the Lutherans view baptism much like we view the preaching of the word. God uses the work of the person to graciously regenerate the individual and/or bring them to faith. Luther did not tie the work of the Spirit necessarily to the moment of administration, but rather the rite was a visible promise of the Gospel which through the hearing of the Word might bring about regeneration by the Spirit then, or later in life.
5. Lutheran baptismal regeneration is rooted in the Spirit’s work rather than the water or the work of a priest, and acknowledges a distinction between the act and the time the Spirit makes it effectual.
Fides infantium – Lutherans hold the view that in baptism, God can graciously grant the baptized infant faith through which they are saved. They don’t believe it is necessary to explain this rationally and argue that Calvinists improperly attempt to rationalize the Bible.
Thus 6. Lutherans believe that in baptism an infant is regenerated by the Word preached and the “word made visible” and that infants are given the gift of faith.
This differs from the Roman view as well as the Pelagian Anabaptist (Church of Christ) view by neither allowing the water itself to be the sole instrument, nor the work of the human being in being baptized as that which regenerates.
Luther therefore recognizes that because of original sin, an adult is no different than an infant in regard to their inability to believe. Thus he viewed that just as God gave faith through the preaching and hearing of the Word, God could (and did) produce faith in an infant just as easily, through the application of the “Word made visible” and the preaching of the Gospel.
Arguing from circumcision (though not necessarily picking up the covenant nature thereof) as well as the examples of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, Luther expressed the idea that infants could be granted the gift of faith, prior to being able to elucidate that belief.
If [inclusion in the kingdom, justification] was brought about with the Jews in the Old Testament through the medium of circumcision, why would God not do the same thing with the Gentiles through the medium of the new covenant (novo pacto) of baptism? The command pertains to all (praeceptum universale est):”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them … “Hence whereas circumcision was commanded only to the descendants of Abraham, baptism is commanded to all the nations, with the promise of salvation if they believe.”
The nature of this faith, what it consisted of, was confessed to be a mystery. While many modern Lutherans hold to this, and quote Luther positively in regards to this, later Lutherans (Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard etc) held diverse views. Chemnitz, for example, taught that it was on the basis of the parent’s faith (called fides aliena) that an infant could be baptized and saved.
Chemnitz later wrote: “Through the washing of water in the Word there is no doubt that Christ works and is efficacious by His Spirit in the infants who are baptized, so that they may receive the kingdom of God, even though we do not understand how this takes place.”
Lutherans claim is that baptism is “God’s work”, not a work of man. It’s God’s Word, God’s promise, God’s washing, etc.
“To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is still truly God’s own work. From this fact everyone may readily conclude that Baptism is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work can we do that is greater than God’s work?” – Larger Catechism
Thus there’s no sense of Pelagianism (that man’s efforts save) in the Lutheran view, rather 7. Lutherans believe that God works through the sacrament to save graciously just as He uses the Word to bring about faith.
The baptismal liturgy of Lutheran churches resembles the Roman rite in many ways. The Lutheran baptismal is usually 8-sided, representing the 8th day on which an infant was circumcised, pointing to the Lord’s Day being the 8th day, the new Sabbath.
The baptismal font is normally at the entrance to the worship area, rather than the front, representing that the entry into the church is through baptism.
Older Lutheran liturgy (occasionally used in some churches) includes an exorcism where the pastor makes the sign of the cross on the infant and says “Depart, evil spirit! Make way for the Holy Spirit.”
The pastor stands at the font and the family brings the child forward
He questions them regarding their responsibilities and they respond “With God’s help, we do.”
The pastor address the congregation, asking for their prayers for the child and family, then the profess their faith through a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed.
“Holy God, mighty Lord, gracious Father: We give you thanks, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and you created heaven and earth. By the gift of water you nourish and sustain us and all living things.
By the waters of the flood you condemned the wicked and saved those whom you had chosen, Noah and his family. You led Israel by the pillar of cloud and fire through the sea, out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land. In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit. By the baptism of his own death and resurrection your beloved Son has set us free from the bondage to sin and death, and has opened the way to the joy and freedom of everlasting life. He made water a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and rebirth. In obedience to his command, we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Pour out your Holy Spirit, so that those who are here baptized may be given new life. Wash away the sin of all those who are cleansed by this water and bring them forth as inheritors of your glorious kingdom.
To you be given praise and honor and worship through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.”
Water is poured over the child’s head three times (tripartite infusion)
Candle is lit and given to the parents – “Let your light shine before others…”
Child is taken up through the center of the church.
The Lutheran churches have some individual leeway as to how this goes exactly.
8. Reformed churches recognize Lutheran baptisms as valid and accept those baptized in Lutheran churches without requiring rebaptism.
Keep in mind that 9. though Lutheranism has similar categories and preaches the same gospel as Reformed theology, they do not agree with us completely. Lutherans are not Calvinists… but they’re not Arminians or Roman Catholics either.
Their view of the sacraments doesn’t take into account the covenantal nature of the signs and seals, thus they have some superstitious views about the sacraments. In the supper, for example, they believe that the body and blood of Christ are “in, with and under” the bread and wine, but have no actual Biblical basis for arguing this way, apart from “well Jesus said ‘this IS my body’.” When pressed they generally retreat to the idea that “it is a mystery” and warn that we shouldn’t ponder into such things.
While Lutherans agree with us on original sin, and unconditional election, 10. Lutherans believe in universal “objective” justification (Christ died for all, but it must be made subjectively yours by faith). They also believe that Christians (that is, those baptized into Christ) can fall away. That said, they do acknowledge election and reprobation, however they claim it is a mystery and seem intent on not delving into the matter, even taking generally Arminian views of Romans 9 etc.